Several times in my life, I’ve had to write eulogies. Each time it’s a struggle. The summation of life is more than the events — my challenge upon discovering the cessation of operation by the Los Angeles Stage Alliance (LASA) was the value? What was left? Since then, for weeks, I’ve been pounding the keyboard. What happened? What have we learned?
Let me state with absolute conviction; there are no excuses for anything that looks like bigotry, or bias, or anti-identity, period. Cultural and racial biases are a result of tribal thinking. Any form of discrimination is simply a justification for dismissing others. Seeking self permission to say I am better, more important, thus allowing the bigot to destroy others for pleasure, for their survival.
Sadly, this still goes on today. And here in the United States, we are certainly feeling the consequences of this antiquated thinking. Artists being the conscience of society, feel a need to address these issues; we identify and personalize events and act accordingly.
That’s the first step, shed light on injustice. Then we act to make a change. It is incumbent on all of us to create meaningful changes, to make sure problems are visible. But in a community, before we act, we need to see beyond the personal, beyond the identity, continue looking until we get to that all-inclusive us. And lest we get sucked into tribal thinking, “us” has to be a greater community than mere identity. Before we treat anyone as an enemy, before we shun or expel someone, a conversation would – should be appropriate.
Where this all gets very tricky is in identification. What is community? It’s a word that gets easily tossed around, implying solidarity and commonality of interests. But an implication is not a factual statement. A community is a collection of individuals and organizations that agree upon a mutual goal(s). The absolute requisite for a community is a definition of intent and the unanimous consent that, before me, comes us. That is a big pill to swallow. But without an eye towards a goal, “tomorrow,” it is not a community; it’s an association. And if the association is limited in scope or time, then it’s just a treaty or temporary alliance. A community is as much about tomorrow as today. Maybe more so. Assuring that any institutions formed will serve as foundations for what is yet to come is essential.
On March 30th, 2021, The Los Angeles Theatre “Community” came together, albeit virtually, to celebrate our achievements and note the luminaries. The 31st presentation of The Ovation Awards. By the end of the night, there were some angry people. Errors had occurred. Names mispronounced, people erroneously identified with someone else’s photo. A notable organization that had co-produced a nominated show was not credited for its contributions. These were all errors with consequences. None should have occurred, and once they did, apologies and corrections were needed.
The Monday following, Marco Gomez, the Executive Director of Los Angeles Stage Alliance, the producing entity for The Ovation Awards, published a statement of apology. But it was too late, or it wasn’t enough.
East-West Players had been the un-named producers. They are one of the oldest ongoing production companies in Los Angeles. A company whose focus is on the artists and cultures with Asian and Pacific Islander (AAPI) interests. They put out a statement and a call to action. Following a detailed citing of errors and asserting the errors were evidence of racial bias. They concluded their statement by saying,
At this time, we are revoking our membership to the LA Stage Alliance. We encourage our colleagues who frequently release statements that they support communities of color to stand in solidarity with us and take the same step. It is imperative we do this until the LA Stage Alliance can transparently demonstrate its commitment to recognizing and providing visibility for all of us in the LA theater community.
It’s not a stretch to see how this seemed an appropriate response given the circumstances. And many in the LA theatre community quickly responded; it was resounding. Many companies quickly dropped their membership in LASA. Individuals in near unison supported the action and concluded that LASA was a bastion of white privilege.
On April 5th, LASA announced.
It is with deep regret that the Board of Governors has unanimously decided to cease all operations for LA Stage Alliance.
Boom – 46 years of effort – done.
With the zeitgeist filled with incidents that reflect racial bias, empathizing with the people attacked is essential. At the same time, equally important, the awareness that because something looks like a duck and may even sound like a duck doesn’t always mean it’s a duck.
This is is not an inditement of those that left—feeling a need to withdraw from LASA. It’s a summation of what happened. No person should remain quiet and take the scorn of others for who they are. It’s vile; it’s hateful, it’s bigotry. And the feeling of marginalization can undoubtedly be a consequence of those actions. I only ask, was it a reasonable response?
Let’s pause here for a moment. What precisely was the Los Angeles Stage Alliance? In the mid-sixties, perhaps earlier, an effort was made by various theatre companies to form some umbrella entity. This organization would provide shared services to its various members. By the late ’60s, the urge had birthed multiple organizations. Among others were LA Community Arts Alliance, Alternative Theatre Alliance, Radical Theatre Alliance, LA Theatre Alliance. The one that stuck for a while was The League of Los Angeles theatres (LOLA) became the acronym. Why the T was left out is anybody’s guess, but that’s another matter. Alistair Hunter was kind enough to shed some light on these efforts, including at least a partial list of charter members.
East-West Players, Odyssey Theatre, Scorpio Rising Theatre, Santa Monica Playhouse, Burbage Theatre, Oxford Playhouse, Ebony Theatre Workshop. The Colony Theatre, Nosotros, Met Theatre, Company of Angeles. Vanguard Theatre, Cellar Theatre, Theatre West, Melrose Theatre, Onion Company, Evergreen Stage Company, Century City Playhouse, Theatre Rapport, Group Theatre, Horseshoe Theatre.
Shared resources, that was the early cry. The how’s and why’s of becoming a non-profit organization became a part of resourced information. By 1970, LOLA had negotiated a shared space in the Los Angeles Times, where all the members could list their shows.
Then as now, theatre artists were looking to solve problems. But then and again now, artists can only spend so much time on administration or in service before needing to return to first love, being creative.
Several other groups formed, and historians can trace them more accurately, but finally, in 1975, that effort became Los Angeles Stage Alliance.
In a community, solutions develop to solve everyday problems. There’s a benefit in building onto these solutions; it minimizes a need to reinvent. Collective resources allow for individual people, companies to shine while background efforts and support continue.
For 46 years, LASA chugged along and developed various programs, some successful, some eventually fizzled. There was the “big list,” an effort to build a database of theatergoers. There were several efforts to create a common-use ticketing service. At least two web developments, a magazine, ticketing systems, and of course, The Ovation Awards. All that took time and dedicated personnel. People that understood that serving the community had to be put above their personal goals.
The Theatre community grew and continued to grow even when challenged by a Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) in the mid-’80s. Many companies came, many ceased, but the shining light, the star that wouldn’t falter, was The Ovation Awards. For 31 years, LASA managed to produce an annual awards show. One of the few events where we could all meet and celebrate our achievements, see growth and preview new directions.
About six years ago, our theatre community suffered a seismic shift. AEA changed the rules of engagement again. A second legal battle was in the forming. The moment that rocked our world and began the quake that is still shaking our community.
Forced to develop new survival plans, every producer knew that the changes would cost more money. Whenever theatres have to spend money, the first question is not how do we make more money, but why? Then swiftly followed by what can we cut? As with any enterprise, the intangible becomes the first target.
LASA, who had always been questioned for value, was suspected of contributing to the AEA problem via the re-imagine LA theatre effort, thus allowing for a deeper shading of LASA. Was the change in leadership at that time a result of this quake, or was it a coincidence?
Every action by LASA was built on knowledge and relationships previously established. Terence McFarland and Doug Clayton worked hard and produced many substantive results. Some of which had been started by others like Lee Wochner and prior executives and directors. Funding, timing, and the new shade were now the enemies.
By the time Steven Leigh Morris took over the helm of LASA, the grumblings about dues and fees were at high pitch. While The Ovation Awards had never had universal participation, those seldom or never nominated began dropping out of LASA. At the same time, the funding that had propped up LASA for a long time dried up. That and the drop in membership inflicted deep, maybe fatal wounds. Many of the programs that had been started or supported by LASA slowed, became dormant at best, or just died; a change was needed.
Steven Leigh Morris took over as Executive Director of LASA, and he tried to engage the entire theatre community. I know that was the intent because I attended many of those meetings. Was the outreach as in-depth as it should have been? I can’t answer that, but I do know that expanding diversity was very much a part of the plan. The doors were open, and everyone got an invitation. I understand that the want was to build a more vital community service organization that served all of the community.
Eventually, the lack of community support, signaled by the low turnout at community meetings, and dropped financing, became too high an obstacle. Steven, to my understanding, started to surrender his pay to keep LASA going. When even that measure failed to rouse the troops, it was time for a change. The one bright spot for LASA was The Ovation Awards. Unknown to most in the community, over the last few years, the apparent success of these award events was largely due to Marco Gomez’s contributions.
Marco is a successful businessman and the producer for DOMA Theatre. He had been contributing significantly to keep The Ovations Awards going. With the resignation of Steven Leigh Morris, Marco became the new Executive Director. From personal conversations, I know that Marco was looking to build LASA into a self-supporting organization that brought both his love of theater and business acumen to bear. Beyond being able to pay bills, the hope was that more sophisticated services could be developed, especially in marketing, bringing awareness to our entire community. Yes, building diversity was part of that vision; should it have been the primary vision? With time and effort, the goal was to build community funding.
Then the pandemic struck, And LASA had to furlough everyone. The governing board was down to four people. Marco Gomez, Tom Ormeny, and two others.
A moment’s pause again, Tom Ormeny had been part of the board since the founding of LASA forty-six years ago. If you don’t know, Tom is half of the creative team behind The Victory Theater in Burbank, and has produced, directed, and played in dozens if not hundreds of shows. He deserves a standing ovation for commitment and service to our community.
For eleven months, our community languished with zoom performances and meetings as the only drink to temporarily quench our theatre thirst. All the while, if there was any press about theatre, it was about Broadway. When was it coming back, what shows will re-open, who was still working, what are the new projects?
For years, I have stated that Los Angeles produces world-class theatre. Having some marketing background myself, I’m assuming that Marco recognized that an essential part of keeping our community alive was to keep the LA Theatre in the news.
What single event in our community could draw more press at this time than The Ovation Awards? I’ve known Marco for years. So I can say with some assurance that publicity and community awareness was, at least in part, the thinking behind the announcement of the 31st Annual awards.
With some haste, without a staff, Marco essentially single-handedly began the plans. Not knowing the details, I can only surmise that expediency became a higher priority. There was some assistance offered, especially by the Ovation Rules Committee. However, they were not engaged. As a businessman, I can testify that committees are not always the best resource when pressured to do something.
When you have done your best, there comes a time when you have to say enough is enough. Only artists continue without falter. On April 5th, 2021, after 46 years of service, The Los Angeles Stage Alliance the Board of Governors decided – done.
It is not a coincidence that starting with the last challenge by AEA, several ancillary institutions, including FootLights, began to falter. Bitter-Lemons as well. While Colin Mitchel certainly played a part in that demise, our community’s lack of financial support certainly helped build his cynicism.
And with the landing of Covid -19, we at FootLights had to shutter our doors as well. Just last week, I disposed of thousands of copies of FootLights. I’d been saving the programs of LA shows over the previous 15 years. It felt strange, it was a testament to what we’d done, And now they’re gone—gone to the great recycling center of Burbank. What started as a physical record of LA Theatre is now on its way to becoming, who knows?
I paused to reflect on my action. I’d offered to send the programs to LASA, but, well, that doesn’t matter now. I’d sent several years of copies to the LA Public Library. I never even got a notice of receipt, so I guess it wasn’t that interesting. And in all honesty, having them around had become painful.
Everywhere I looked in my office and garage, there were boxes and loose copies of programs. And each one I saw reminded me that what I’d found as a life purpose, well, was no more. If you’ve been wondering, FootLights Publishing now only exists in digital files on my computer in the thousands of entries on the Website. Thinking about how to repurpose that, stay tuned.
There are others to document the events of our community. There are reporters like Julio Martinez, who thankfully remains to keep us abreast of what’s going on in LA. And we have a multitude of reviewers who are undoubtedly sharpening their pencils in anticipation of the theatrical onslaught. Stalwarts of our stages will go on and bring us brilliant and expressive theatre. Steven Leigh Morris is surely refreshing StageRaw. Mr. Stanley will assuredly continue to post his thoughts and make sure that everyone gets their moment in the sun. And Tracey Paleo will contribute with deft effort in her new role for Broadway World. There are others, too numerous to name, who will offer their opinions.
The new dawn of LA Theatre will shed light on the survivors. It will reveal emerging artists, new companies, and to extend the metaphor, we will undoubtedly see the sunset on some. What will be missing is LASA. Bringing LATheatre (#LAThtr) to light, not necessarily on individual accomplishments, but on all of us. Now that torch will pass to others. Our city, our state, the world needs to know that the LA Theatre Community produce some of the best theatre in the world.
In my time, I have known four of the Executive Directors of LASA. Every one of them brought far more to the table than effort. They brought love and hope for a community that sometimes only sees love when offered by the applause in front of the stage.
They and every member of our community infuse our theatres with passion. From the producers, the actors, the director, the tireless designers to the writers, the carpenters, the seamstresses. They all work for far less than they are worth. I know I’m missing many, including the folks that sometimes walk into our houses and offer to sweep the floor for a cup of coffee. These, and every one of them, is a member, a necessary member to sustain and build our future.
As theatres begin to re-open, if we are a community, we must support everyone, including people and organizations that work for us. If we support their efforts, they will be standing by to help us.
Broadway is already announcing what’s to come. Take note, the use of Broadway as a collective force is the story that is on the front pages. Part of that story is the shows, but the drive and the interest are about that community.
But do we have time to talk about where we are going as a community? Or are we too busy saving a few bucks and wagging our fingers at others?
My single hope is that for whatever comes, we will all look beyond the obvious. Will the community be better served if we serve the community? If we include those that come to help?
And now, with nearly 50 years of experience in the theatre community, I ask, does anyone need their floor swept?